BAGHDAD (AP) â€” US jets screamed low over central Baghdad Tuesday, helicopter gunships fired into the battle zone and the Iraqi government said 50 insurgents were killed in the nearly daylong battle with US and Iraqi forces along Haifa Street, a Sunni stronghold that has seen repeated heavy fighting throughout the war.
The fighting raged about 2.5 kilometres north of Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone â€” home to the US embassy and thousands of American troops â€” on the eve of US President George W. Bush’s expected announcement that he would dispatch 20,000 more troops to Iraq, despite growing opposition on Capitol Hill where opposition Democrats have taken control.
Elsewhere in Iraq on Tuesday, police reported finding 52 bodies dumped in three cities, 41 of them in Baghdad alone.
It was the second major and bloody confrontation along dangerous Haifa Street in the four days since Prime Minister Nouri Maliki announced a new drive to cleanse the capital of sectarian fighters.
The US military said about 1,000 Iraqi army and US troops had conducted “targeted raids to capture multiple targets, disrupt insurgent activity and restore Iraqi Security Forceâ€™s control of North Haifa Street.” “This area has been subject to insurgent activity which has repeatedly disrupted Iraqi Security Force operations in central Baghdad,” said a statement quoting Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, spokesman for Multinational Division Baghdad.
He said no US or Iraqi forces were killed and that US jets did not fire or drop any weapons, although “attack helicopters were used to engage targets in support of the ground forces”.Â The military statement did not address the number of militants killed.
Muthana Harith Dhari, spokesman for the influential Muslim Scholars Association, a Sunni organisation, claimed the operation killed 12 civilians, including a 14-year-old, Jazeera television reported.
At a Saturday ceremony marking the 85th anniversary of the founding of the Iraqi army, Maliki again vowed to strike at the sponsors of sectarian warfare â€” whether fellow Shiites or Sunnis.
Maliki issued the new plan after lengthy consultations with Bush who has been preparing a new Iraq policy in recent weeks after the Democrats swept control of both houses of the US Congress in November.
The US leader was to deliver a major policy address to the nation Wednesday night, outlining his new plan â€” widely reported to include the dispatch of thousands more troops to the increasingly violent capital.
Within hours of Maliki’s speech on Saturday, the Iraqi military said 30 suspected militants were killed in the Haifa Street after police discovered 27 bodies dumped in the area, most of the victims were shot in the head and showed signs of torture. US forces joined that fight as well after the Iraqi army called for backup.
Maliki â€” who draws major support from radical, anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, the leader of the dangerous Mehdi ArmyÂ â€” appeared to have ordered the stepped up engagement with Sunni fighters to put an Iraqi face on the latest bid to tame the sectarian civil war in the capital.
Several Maliki aides and confidants have told the Associated Press that the prime minister plans to focus his troops, with American backing, on Sunni insurgents in western Baghdad at the outset of the drive. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the details of the plan had not been disclosed.
The prime minister, the Maliki associates said, then planned to challenge Sadr, the Mehdi Army leader, to disarm and disband his militia because there would no longer be a reason for them roam the streets with insurgent forces crippled or on the run.
Such a strategy assumed a successful operation to against the insurgents, which was not at all assured.
The latest plan to curb the sectarian fighting was at least the fourth, all of which have failed or led only to a temporary easing of violence in Baghdad, where Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias have been killing each other and civilians at a dizzying pace.
In an interview with Dubai-based Arabiya television Tuesday night, Maliki predicted Bush would outline measures aimed “to speed up the building and arming of Iraqi forces, increase Baghdad’s security in order to stabilise it and support the government in the economic field to improve services”. He did not mention Bush’s expected setting out of benchmarks for the Iraqi government to institute measures for the fair sharing of the country’s oil wealth among all sects and ethnic groups, a restoration of members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party to their jobs and constitutional reforms.
Maliki rejected similar US demands late last year, leading to a serious breach between Baghdad and Washington.
The prime minister also has routinely ignored US calls for him to outlaw Shiite militias and move against them with his army.
Thus, the true test of US-Iraqi agreement on the way forward, as the leaders of both countries again announced pacification drives in the capital, appeared to stand or fall on Maliki’s willingness to confront his main political backer â€” Sadr.
Maliki also confirmed Tuesday that he had rejected a request from US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad for a delay of up to two weeks in Saddam’s execution because “we did not want to keep a door open for trouble. We did not want the families of the victims to go out and demonstrate.” The hanging led to a a global outcry after a video appeared on the Internet that showed Saddam being taunted in his final moments.
That clandestine video showed the former leader dropping through the gallows floor as he recited prayers and ended with his dead body swinging at the end of a rope. The Iraqi government said it has formed a committee to investigate who took the video and leaked it for public distribution, saying one person had been referred to judicial authorities.
North of Baghdad, a cargo plane carrying mostly Turkish workers crashed as it apparently tried to land at a US air base in bad weather, killing 34 people, Iraqi and Turkish officials said.
An official at the Turkish embassy in Baghdad said one person, a Turk, had survived but was severely injured.
An Iraqi security official at Baghdad airport said an Antonov plane crashed near Balad, 80 kilometres north of the Iraqi capital. Its passengers were mostly Turks who worked at the Baghdad airport, the official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to media.
The official said it was unclear whether the aircraft had mechanical problems or whether it was shot down.
A Turkish foreign ministry official said initial reports indicated the plane went down because of bad weather and heavy fog. The official also spoke on condition of anonymity because an official announcement had not yet been authorised.
The pilot had aborted an initial attempt to land because of heavy fog, then crashed on a second attempt, the ministry official said.
Private Turkish news agencies said the plane was trying to land at a US military base at Balad. Turkey’s foreign ministry confirmed that the crash happened at Balad, but did not say whether it was at the US base.
Meanwhile, a convoy of Sunni pilgrims returning from the Hajj was hijacked shortly after crossing into Iraq from Saudi Arabia Tuesday, according to a Sunni politician and a local television station. The government denied the report.
Baghdad Television did not say how many people were kidnapped but reported they were hijacked shortly after entering Iraq through the Arar crossing point that leads into predominantly Shiite southern Iraq.
Maliki’s office issued a terse statement saying that reports about kidnapping of pilgrims are “untrue.” But a security official in the region told the Associated Press that police had information that 10 wanted Saudi citizens were going to be in a convoy of five buses and all the bus passengers were in custody and being questioned.
“It is not yet clear if the Saudis were in the convoy,” the official said.
The influential Association of Muslim Scholars said in a statement that men in security forces uniforms asked the pilgrims to abandon the buses and leave their belongings inside. It claimed those who waylaid the convoy took the buses and left the pilgrims “in the desert, waiting for their relatives to pick them up.” Ahmed Abdul Ghafour Samaraie, head of the Sunni endowment, told the private Sharqiya TV station that most of those kidnapped were teachers at the Sunni Islamic University. He added that they were kidnapped by militiamen wearing security forces uniforms.
“This is a plan to harm our people, kidnap our sons and destroy our community,” said Samaraie, speaking from neighbouring Jordan. The Sunni endowment is the state agency responsible for Sunni mosques and shrines.
Sunni legislator Alaa Makki, told Jazeera television that “one of the pilgrims who managed to contact us before commandos took his cellular telephone said that security forces stationed at Arar told the previous convoys that ‘we are with you to escort you peacefully and they should tell the other convoys to come.’ But after that it appeared that they had lists of wanted names to ask for them”. Makki said four clerics in the convoy were taken “to an unidentified place, escorted by military vehicles. The caller said they are taking us to unidentified place then the line was cutâ€.
Later Tuesday, a Royal Court official in Amman said King Abdullah agreed to allow Iraqi pilgrims through Jordan to return home from Saudi Arabia. The King received a request to allow the Iraqis safe passage through Jordan, the official said.
The official did not say who made the request.
A route through Jordan from Saudi Arabia would allow Iraqi Sunni Arabs to circumvent mainly Shiite southern Iraq and directly enter parts of Iraq where Sunnis predominate.
There were several mass kidnappings of Sunnis in Iraq in the past months and some are still missing. Sunnis have accused the Shiite controlled interior ministry of being infiltrated by militias that they say carry kidnappings and killings.